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Our story

How China Folk House came to be

a note from our Founders, John Flower and Pam Leonard


A Crazy Idea


The China Folk House project grew out of the Sidwell Friends School China Fieldwork Semester, a program we ran for five years (2014 - 2018) that took students to Yunnan Province, China, for an integrated semester of experiential learning based at the Linden Center in Xizhou. While leading students on a trip to the Three Parallel Rivers region in northwest Yunnan, we visited the town of Cizhong, along the upper reaches of the Mekong River, and went to the small riverside hamlet of Ximalaza, where about 30 homes would be inundated by the reservoir of the new Wunonglong hydropower dam project. As our group wandered down toward the river, the walled gate of a house suddenly opened, and the surprised owner, Mr. Zhang Jianhua, invited us all in for tea and a look around his home. John admired the craftsmanship of house, “it’s so lovely, what a pity it will be lost to the dam! I wish I could just take it home with me,” to which Mr. Zhang replied, “Ok, let’s do it!”


That started the idea of trying to save the house by dismantling it and moving it to a new home in America—an appealing idea because we had used houses to great effect as a teaching tool for students to learn about Chinese culture.  The symbols, the family histories, the political movements, the community identity, values, and historical change are all inscribed in houses. Cizhong was such an interesting community, with multiple ethnic groups and a vibrant Catholic community, that a house from Cizhong would be an incredibly rich text of everyday life; we were sure it was a good idea to try to save the house by moving it, the only problem was how to do it.


From the Himalayas and the Mekong to the Blue Ridge and the Shenandoah”


In summer 2017, a Venture Grant from Sidwell Friends School paid for John and his colleague Steve Steinbach to travel to China to study and document the house for a three-week period.  Steve’s daughter Ali Steinbach and another former student of John’s, Nikhil Chaudhuri, also found funds from their universities (Harvard and Stanford) enabling them to join the study trip.  John paid for his friend Marty Fair to join the team, knowing his carpentry expertise would be a great help if they did end up taking down the house.  Finally, and crucially, Yang Wendou was hired to join them as a tour leader.  At the end of two weeks studying the house through interviews and physical documentation, John and Pam used their personal funds to buy the house and furnishings, take it down, and ship it to Baltimore—saving the structure and its stories, but not knowing exactly where or how it would be resurrected.

When we learned about the Friends Wilderness Center, a Quaker retreat located on a 1400-acre nature preserve along the Shenandoah River in Harpers Ferry West Virginia, we felt certain this was the place.  The Quaker consortium who ran the Friends Wilderness Center supported the idea. Their mission is to encourage people to enjoy the beautiful nature of this site, and they especially wanted to bring in more young people. 


Breaking Ground


We had hoped that rebuilding the house would be a joint project with Sidwell Friends School, but they weren’t able to provide any direct support for the project; however, the parents of Sidwell students filled the gap. 


Over 2018 and early 2019, a group of parents whose children joined us on the semester program China, led by Kurt Campbell, rallied to help us form a non-profit 501(c)(3), create a Board and a brand, and launch our first fundraiser. With their generous donations we were able to break ground in 2019, and with volunteer labor from students, the West Virginia Timber Framers Guild led by Patrick Shunney and Bruce Cowie, Matthew Caplins and others from the local community, and under the guidance of our hired builders Jonathan Morrison and Mathieu Lamaure, by the end of fall 2019 the frame was raised and under roof. 

But we were still sorely short of funds to move things forward.  We knew we needed the exterior walls, the house interior, a bathhouse, a kitchen-- and so much more!


Meeting Mr. Dao Feng He, Our Founding Sponsor, Lead Donor, and Senior Advisor


When we were worrying about fundraising, one Sidwell parent, Jin Wang, introduced us to Mr. Dao Feng He, a man who came from Yunnan, had an impressive record of philanthropy going back to his work in China for victims of the Sichuan Earthquake, and who Jin thought might be interested in this project. 


John was very excited to show Mr. He what we had started. One day, John rode out from the city with Dao Feng and his wife, Angela He, to show them the project, at that point just the timber frame under roof.  After carefully inspecting the site, Daofeng looked at John and declared “you’re crazy!”— John was worried that he’d have to find another ride back to school; how would he get to his class in time?  Happily, it turned out Mr. He meant “good crazy”!  “ We appreciate John's daring to think and do things to achieve his dream.” Dao Feng and Angela enthusiastically embraced the project.


“No matter the tension between the two governments, people-to-people ties cannot be interrupted. This channel must maintain its civilian position and not be contaminated by political dust. Yunnan is a good choice to maintain a channel for people-to-people exchanges between China and the United States because it was initially a critical connection in the history between the West and China. ” Mr. He said, “In addition, Yunnan is my hometown. The house was located in the Dam submerged area. I have always been concerned about the problem of indiscriminate construction of dams and the forced displacement of residents they cause.” We were honored to have a partner of his standing, and encouraged by the confidence he showed in us.


Under the leadership of Mr. Dao Feng He, Dao Feng and Angela Foundation forged the three-year funding agreement that teamed him with Kurt Campbell, The Asia Group Foundation, and Jin Wang—with Dao Feng and Angela Foundation paying $95,000 each year for three years. Those founding funds were the critical launch of our project from the initial construction phase to a whole new level of operations that not only finished the House but also added essential infrastructure and enabled our student programs to expand.

However, Mr. Dao Feng He plays a crucial role in the success of China Folk House not only in providing generous funding but also through providing key strategic guidance as a valued senior advisor of the project.


In year three, Dao Feng brought in Mr. Feng Dong of the Bedrock Foundation to suggest expanding the scope of the project with a new Garden Grant that would pay over $300,000 for a flagstone courtyard, raised planter beds, an organic vegetable garden, an ethnobotany garden, and much needed general improvements to the surrounding forest and pond. Dao Feng’s idea to build the gardens is brilliant: the gardens have become an essential part of our experiential learning programs and a key enhancement of the visitor experience.


Dao Feng’s latest suggestion is that we highlight the history of the Cizhong church as central to the community and therefore make it the “soul” of the museum. We agree with this idea and are confident that this exhibition will become a central “soul” element in the story of the house, with the other exhibitions on ethnicity, agriculture, architecture, kinship, craft, and rural folkways providing rich cultural and historical context.


Crucially, beyond generous funding for the reconstruction of the house and building new gardens, both Dao Feng and Feng Dong also helped advise us on our institutional development, moving us from a mom-and-pop outfit to a more professional and sustainable non-profit organization. The advice on governance resulted in CFH forming an executive committee to streamline decision making, adopting standardized bookkeeping practices, and learning how to manage large grants.


In 2022, we were able to build on this experience to successfully receive a major grant from the Dalio Philanthropies.  This generous donation provided the critical resources to run a craft camp in the summer of 2023 that paired students with timber frame craft masters.  The student apprentices and timber framers completed a total of three bunkhouses, based on a design by Mathieu Lamaure, that deployed the Chinese timber frame principles he learned by rebuilding the China Folk house.


From that point forward, the work of building the China Folk House became an all-absorbing passion project from which so many young people, schools, churches, and community groups have benefited.



Growing With Support From All Parties


This story would not be complete without acknowledging the huge contribution of our Board and of the many grassroots donors who have supported China Folk House over the years.  We have an amazing Board of Directors who volunteer their time and donate generously to move us forward in every way possible.  They have helped us reach out to many supporters with annual fundraisers and special events.  In 2023 they raised $67,000 with one event that allowed us to build and outfit our beautiful commercial kitchen, essential infrastructure that is the condition for the possibility of our summer programs. These efforts are ongoing, as are our needs.


Building is expensive—and we’ve done a lot of building!—but we’re lucky to have done so with the help of a small dedicated crew and the volunteer labor of so many wonderful people.  As of December 2023, we’ve calculated that China Folk House has been rebuilt through a total of 21,871 volunteer hours.  Of special note is the work done by high school students who have come every summer for five years for a total of 7,620 hours of volunteering. We remember their work in every stone, every hempcrete surface, every wall that they helped raised.  As one student so aptly observed, “not all walls divide”; at China Folk House, they build common ground.

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